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So What Do You Do, Will Connors, International Correspondent?

Rather than work his way through the ranks, this would-be int'l correspondent journeyed to Ethiopia, learned the language and found himself stringing for the NYT

By Greg Lindsay - October 31, 2007
I met Will Connors this past July, the night I arrived in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. A few weeks before, The New York Times had run a front page story about the Muslim rebellion brewing in the country's eastern desert. While the story had been written by the Times' East Africa bureau chief, Jeffrey Gettleman, out of Nairobi, there was a second name appended to the bottom of the story, an "additional reporting by" credit given to someone operating out of Addis Ababa. That was Will. My fianc�, worried that I knew absolutely no one in the city, promptly tracked him down through (what else?) his blog and introduced us.

Will was The New York Times' de facto Ethiopia correspondent at the time and the paper's only reporter on the ground there. This despite the fact that he's 25 years old. After graduating college, he decided the action was on Horn of Africa, and set out to find it, landing in Ethiopia, learning the local language (Amharic, native only to the Christian population there), and working his way up through the local papers before getting one tiny break from the Times. It struck me that he fulfilled the dream so many journalists have of being foreign correspondents, and he had done it without suffering the tedium of rising through a paper's ranks. Shortly after my visit, the dream turned into a nightmare when the government cracked down on "dissidents," including journalists, forcing Connors to flee the country. (Our Q&A was conducted via email from his temporary quarters in Nairobi.) Now he's on the road, stringing for the Times from Congo and next from either Nigeria or Indonesia. Magazine editors looking for their own foreign correspondent should get in touch.


Name: Will Connors
Position: Solo
Resume: "A work in progress"
Birthdate: January 10, 1982
Hometown: Sugar Hill, New Hampshire
Education: University of Chicago, "where the fun goes to die."
Marital status: "Monk-, hermit-, eunuch-like"
First section of the Sunday Times: Sports -- "if the Yankees lost."
Guilty pleasure: "R. Kelly, H-Town, Ginuwine, Isley Brothers ... except, wait. I don't really feel guilty at all."
Last book read: A couple of Mahfouz' [i.e. Naguib Mahfouz, the Nobel Prize-winning Egyptian novelist]


What originally made you want to move to Africa? Why did you want to move overseas in the first place, and how did you choose Africa?
After college -- I studied English and Sociology at the University of Chicago -- and an anti-hunger fellowship spent in Alaska and D.C., I was extremely restless and wanted to travel abroad, specifically to Africa. I started reading as much as I could get my hands on, and pretty quickly began focusing on East Africa, then Ethiopia. The only African country never to be colonized, Ethiopia has an amazingly unique culture and history. Plus, the food and coffee are fantastic. I didn't have a job at the time, or any prospects at all, really, so finally I just bought a one-way ticket and went. Earlier I had arranged to have lunch with someone who was moving to Ethiopia a month before me, solely to ask if I could crash on their couch when I arrived. I didn't know anyone except them, so despite feeling bad about being a total mooch, I was desperate. And like almost all Ethiopians, they were wonderful and endlessly hospitable.

Once you were on the ground in Ethiopia, how did you set out to be a journalist? Did you hook up with the local papers or the NGOs first? How did you make ends meet in the early going? How did you make contacts? What was the media scene in Addis like?
I hadn't planned to become a journalist, although I think the impulse had always been in the back of mind somewhere. Almost unconsciously, as soon as I touched down in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia's capital, I began looking for jobs at local English-language papers. I quickly found a gig as a copy editor at a very small regional paper, then with a lifestyle magazine.

I'll admit it. I was taking a nap when The New York Times called me for the first time.

I arrived in 2005, immediately after contentious elections and during continued post-election violence, so a bunch of local newspapers had been shut down and their editors arrested. It was not a great time for the free press in Ethiopia, but the paper I started at had a pretty good reputation for remaining independent. I got into the shit a month after my arrival. A colleague and I were detained for shooting pictures of government soldiers beating some kids, and though we were only held for about 12 hours, it was still freaky. Plus I felt like a total ass for getting my colleague, an Ethiopian, beaten up. Typical na�ve American stuff.

I did a bunch of other writing and editing jobs for the next year, most notably for the BBC and an online paper called the Middle East Times. To pay the bills I also wrote two books for the NGO Save the Children, which I was hesitant about at first due to some of my own personal reservations about NGOs. But the gig afforded me the opportunity to travel extensively in rural Ethiopia and really get to know the country and the people better. I got to sleep on tanned cow-hide mats outside, under the stars, with the friendliest and hardiest peoples. It was an amazing, humbling experience.

How did you first make contact with The New York Times, and how did you cultivate that relationship to the point where you were writing features for the paper? What is your relationship with Jeffrey Gettleman like?
I'll admit it. I was taking a nap when The New York Times called me for the first time. I panicked when finally I answered and ran outside in my boxers to get better cell phone reception. The neighbors were not amused. The Times correspondent in Nairobi wanted me to do some work on the ground on an American citizen who was being held in a secret prison in Ethiopia. That was my first big break, and I did a good job, so they were willing to use me again. It was a good thing they couldn't see me napping and drooling on myself over the phone.

The downside of working the Times, of course, is the negative attention it must bring in countries unfriendly to the press. What were the chain of events that forced you to leave Ethiopia?
From then on, the news continued to come from Ethiopia, so I was working steadily for the Times. The correspondent was very generous with shared bylines and even let me do a few of my own stories. Shit got intense when we started working on a story about a rebel group in the eastern part of the country. That's when the government began tapping my phone and following me. The Ministry of Information said I could never work as a journalist in Ethiopia. I said, "Never?" They said, "Never!" Eventually things got so intense that people high up started recommending I leave the country. I never wanted to, and hesitated until the last minute, but finally did, with regret.

Did you ever feel your life was in danger?
What I feared for most was not my own safety but that of the Ethiopians who knew me and worked with me on various stories. Any Ethiopian seen with me would be questioned, and sometimes much worse. Even my roommate, who is Ethiopian and works for the post office, was interrogated, threatened, and followed for weeks after I left. He and most others did not have the luxury to flee.

What are your plans from here? Are you hoping to work full-time for the Times? Where are you headed next?
The Times has been great to me, giving me chances to get my own pieces in the paper and continue working. I'm headed for either Nigeria or Indonesia, or both, next, to continue freelancing. Hopefully a full-time gig with a paper or magazine will happen soon.

What advice would you give to journalists hoping to become foreign correspondents (or even work overseas)?
I'm still relatively green, but if I had to give advice to aspiring journalists I guess it would be this: If you're restless or don't want to work for years getting coffee for editors, and want to work abroad, then just go. In a strange, new place, you'll be forced to figure it out quickly. Oh, and if you're in a foreign country and your local colleague tells you not to take anymore pictures of soldiers, listen to him!


Greg Lindsay is a freelancer and frequent contributor to mediabistro.com. He's currently at work on his first book.

[This interview has been edited for length and clarity.]



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